Stacking Maps

PlaneProjection stacking
Fig 1 – Stacking Maps in PlaneProjection

Stacking maps is a pretty common experience. It goes back a long way with the now antique, but intriguing, use of clear mylars to portray various feature overlays. I don’t think I was the only kid fascinated with Encyclopedia Britannica’s plastic overlay illustrations. Even as a young engineer we used mylar overlays occasionally. It’s the same thing today but computers make virtual overlays, or layers, relatively easy. Stacking layers is a useful paradigm when using a single coordinated set of features that have a common origin, resolution, coordinate system, and order. However, now that we’ve gotten used to pulling maps from disparate parts of the internet, layer stacking is not always so simple. We are now stacking layers and then moving up the ontology stream to stack additional sets of layers, from other related maps.

Pulling maps from various WMS or WFS sources comes with a set of problems. Even after dealing with matching coordinate systems, resolution differences, and date currency issues, there is still order to take into account. This means choosing what should be at the bottom and what sits on top. The issues that inevitably come up are problems with masking. This is especially a problem when using multiple opaque WMS map sources. The user should have ultimate say as to what layer fits where in his view of his stack, but this flexibility is not always easy to provide.

For example last week I discovered this beautiful map source, “TopOSM”. You can see a Colorado Relief Map here in OpenLayers and here is a Silverlight view of the same tile service.

PlaneProjection stacking
Fig 2 – Stacking TopOSM

When I started playing with this tile source, which was put together by Lars Ahlzen, I was unable to consistently get the tiles for the transportation feature layer. I didn’t solve that problem, but began thinking ,”why use another transportation feature layer when OpenStreetMap is readily available, also very attractive, and doubtless more up to date.” This presented the masking problem because tiles from Open Street Map are opaque and the base relief layer of TopOSM is also opaque. In WMS this is typically handled by setting a TRANSPARENT parameter true. The WMS server then produces a png image with the background invisible or transparent.

However, in a tile source this has to be done when creating the tiles. The decision is usually made based on the percentage of cover in a given layer. For example aerial or satellite imagery has 100% coverage and so TRANSPARENT = true is meaningless. Road layers, though, are relatively sparse and would generally benefit from transparency. In the case of TopOSM the base relief layer includes terrain shading with 100% coverage. Contours on the TopOSMContour layer are generally sparse and published as a transparent=true tile source. The OSM maps contain large polygonal color areas and some shading so the decision was evidently made to produce OSM tiles without transparent background. Unfortunately I have a conflict. How to use two opaque map layers.

First I went searching for an OSM tile source that had a transparent background. There seems to have been one, at least at one time, as indicated here by this WorldWind Wiki link. I wasn’t able to get this tile source to respond so perhaps it is now defunct. Of course you could get a copy of OSM and publish your own set of transparent=true tiles, but that is a lot of work for a weekend. I also ran across some ‘on the fly’ java transform approaches that turn a color range into a transparent png as the tiles are read. However, this approach would be a performance bottleneck, defeating the whole purpose of a tile service.

One workaround is to adjust opacity in the client view. Even though this can result in a dim or blurry layer, it lets multiple opaque layers coexists.

PlaneProjection stacking
Fig 3 – Stacking Maps with opacity masking lower layer

PlaneProjection stacking
Fig 4 – Stacking Maps with opacity adjusted to show lower layer

This actually works pretty well. I can stack two opaque layers from different map sources along with one additional transparent layer, the contours. I now have the beautiful relief and USGS topo contours, along with a very nice and up to date set of road features from OSM. I can change opacity of the two opaque tile sources to suit my need. If I want just the bare earth relief, I can set TopOSM opacity to one, but if I want to know where on earth I am, it helps to see the OSM transportation features. A nice compromise is opacity 0.5 for the top opaque map layer. I settled on using OSM as base and TopOSM as the opacity adjusted top map layer. With just two opaque sources this works OK, but what if you have several. Things get a bit misty with opacity on opacity. As we look forward to hyperspectral stacks with hundreds or thousands of layers in giant stacks, opacity won’t do the job.

Since Silverlight 3 introduced PlaneProjection properties, why not try something different. Here is a cool link that explains as well as illustrates what is going on with PlaneProjection. You can see from this post that it is relatively simple to manipulate plane projection parameters by binding slider values to axis of Rotation, GlobalOffset, and LocalOffset. So the question is can I do this with maps?

Here is an example of a MapTileLayer, and yes, it does include a Projection Property so now we can hook up all kinds of tools for manipulating maps out of plane.

<m:MapTileLayer Opacity="1" x:Name="OSM"
        <PlaneProjection x:Name="OSMProjection"


PlaneProjection stacking
Fig 5 – Stacking Maps with PlaneProjection RotationX but all in the same LocalOffset

PlaneProjection stacking
Fig 6 – Stacking Maps with with PlaneProjection RotationX and LocalOffset changes

Here is a link that lets you try out various parameters of a Map Stack:

It is interesting to play around with plane projection and move layers here and there, but as it turns out this is not all that useful for map portrayal. I guess the academics call this a “cartography” issue. The point is how usefully is information presented to a map user or the map consumer. The opacity approach, in my opinion, is by far the better way to use multiple opaque map sources in a cartographically meaningful manner, as long as there are just a few. However, It is still very interesting technically to play with PlaneProjection and see how well it is implemented, even with deeply nested controls.

Another use for PlaneProjection often seen now is the “Flip” animation. Basically it uses an animation tied to a layout control that flips the layout over using PlaneProjection Rotation. If the first layout is replaced by a new one, it reproduces the effect of turning pages. This is similar to the experience of paper pages in a book and could be applied to maps using an Atlas model. But it is not especially helpful since the point of using maps is usually not moving from paper to paper, but from space to space, and in our world all space happens to be contiguous. The physicists among us may beg to differ but cartography in Geospatial systems is all about solid earth surfaces.

However, aside from GIS, here is a small example of using an animated illustration along with a map. In this sample there is an animation with a “before” and “after” view that can be flipped with a simple “next” button. The novelty is a bit interesting …. if you have adequate hardware. However, this is a deeply nested, multi animated layout, and the flip sequence is not all that smooth especially on older hardware. You can see that the interior runoff animations do continue running even while the wrapping ProjectionPlane is rotating, which says a lot for the power of Microsoft’s implementation. Linear Algebra seems less abstract when you see it doing something right before your eyes.

PlaneProjection stacking
Fig 7 – Use of animated PlaneProjection for flip effects

Performance is a consideration and Silverlight 3 adds GPU acceleration. Here is a link describing the use of GPU acceleration in Silverlight. It seemed to help with the map plane projection example above, but GPU BitCaching is not suited for animation so it does nothing to help performance in my flip example.


Silverlight 3 PlaneProjection has some very nice features and warrants some more experimentation. However, it doesn’t add very much to the current state of slippy map tiled cartography. Working with many layers is another matter, and PlaneProjection could play a big part in UI development for hyperspectral sources.

Silverlight 3 PlaneProjection does add interest to ancillary map information. I’m not saying Metadata will be a great joy if we can virtually flip pages and pages of the stuff, but there are uses for out of plane media placed in a geographic context. If nothing else, it allows access to more information with less visual clutter. Maybe the Flickr photo pattern has been overdone, but some business workflow processes could actually benefit from media embedded usefully in a map surface.

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